Fitting in Writing ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That)

I have a thousand things to do today and writing is just not one of them.  This statement represents well the challenge of people working full time, managing the hustle and bustle of life while also trying to squeeze in writing.  Often times when I share with friends and colleagues that I enjoy writing, the number one question consistently asked is, “When do you have time to write?”


I must admit it is a valid question to ponder.   While working a full time job clocking at least 50 hours a week and attending classes five hours a week on a personal quest to earn a Phd, it is a reasonable question to ask.  I find the answer to be one simple truth.  You frankly make time to do what you want to do.   There is no magic potion for finding time to write.  There is no miracle formula that works universally; it’s simply a commitment that one has to make and stay the course across all obstacles until the desired writing objectives are complete.

When people shift to a healthier lifestyle, their eating and exercise habits must change in order to sustain success.  Writing is no different.  To sustain a healthy pattern of writing, you must watch your writing habits.

My writing has not been a perfect journey, and I haven’t yet hit all of my writing goals.   What I do have is a few habits that I keep coming back to that will refocus me as needed.  No matter how long I step away from writing, these three triggers work to get me back on track.  Identifying your writing triggers is a revelation we all need. Here are my top three:

Writing is therapy for me. My best writing is triggered by moments of pain.  I came to know this through the experience of losing my job as well as the loss of a dear friend.   These moments of pain and loss created my best writing pieces.  This has helped me to take advantage of opportunities to bring my voice forward in the turmoil of dark times.   Writing heals me.  Over time, I have learned to embrace the pain and stop myself to write during those times.  Never let a good crisis go to waste.

With a little help by friends I get by. The best thing that happened to my writing practices was joining a writing group and developing a group of friends that support my writing ups and downs.  I joined a writing group because it was something different and sounded like a cool idea at the time.  My co-worker invited me to the group.  He was the King Blogger of a large corporation and I was always fascinated by his writing style.   This group is the glue that keeps my writing going.  We meet every two weeks and read each other’s’ projects and celebrate successes and rejections.  Peer pressure still works and you just do not want to show up three straight times without something to show and tell.  That pressure will have you rising up early mornings or late nights to get something written down.  We all subscribe to the belief that it doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to be written down.   Simply attending our sessions give me enough mojo to dust myself off and get back up again.

Be kind to myself when I’m off track. I am my worst critic and when I do not hit a writing goal, I go inward and it creates a downward spiral that lands me in a place of being stuck.  Over the years, I have adopted a lighter attitude about not hitting every single deadline on time.  Writing is something I get to do.   It’s not something I have to do.  And each time, I get to write, I treat it as an honor and a privilege to bring my voice forward. By being kind to myself during my writing lulls, I find that I shift out of the lulls much faster.

Writing is a gift and as the William Faulkner quote says, “if a story is in you, it has got to come out.”  So, I hope this blog inspires you to uncover your writing triggers if you haven’t already and bring your stories out.   I would love to hear your ideas on how you manage to “fit in writing.”  Please post your tips below because we all could use them.  Happy Writing!

Oh Please, Do Tell


Show, don’t tell. Put the reader in the moment. Activate the senses with detail. Be specific.

These are all necessary lessons and they’re repeated like a common mantra in just about every creative writing course. It’s not bad advice. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to show a character with action or set the theme with an image of the natural elements. But when writing is burdened with too much showy detail, it’s more distraction than illumination.

What if the slap of frigid cold air, the sting from the stench of rancid cooking oil, sweat dripping, palms itching, nose twitching and fingers fidgeting was all crammed into the first page of a story? Does the reader really need to be reminded of every bodily function a human being could feel in a ten second interval?


Gravy (Photo credit: Knile)

“Show, don’t tell” can persuade the beginning writer to add oodles of boring minutia, killing the pleasure of the story, and overwhelming the plot. It’s detail for detail’s sake and the results are typically clumsy and amateurish. I know because that’s the feedback I received from an early piece. It didn’t have details sprinkled or woven into the story. Rather it was image after image, ladled on like thick gravy covering the main course.

I had over-learned the lesson “show, don’t tell.”

Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips, the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch, open toward the sunset, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind.

This famous passage from The Great Gatsby is in the first chapter when Daisy and her cousin are sauntering out to the patio. It captures the setting wonderfully and deserves its place up on the literary pedestal of imagery par excellence.

chase: 100 pts: the great gatsby

chase: 100 pts: the great gatsby (Photo credit: emdot)

But well before this lovely sentence Fitzgerald had used a “tell”, so plain and effective, it laid the foundation for the showy parts to work their magic.

Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.

The narrator had already pulled us into the story by telling us who he is, and how a certain man had altered his moral compass.

And this is the lesson I wish I’d heard early on—writing is all about how to balance show and tell.

Narration, exposition, stream of consciousness are needed to move the story along or reveal an internal frame of mind. Learning to write narrative that doesn’t sound like a lecture or feel heavy handed and intrusive, that skill is possibly the most important. Because a string of images needs a narrative spine to hold the story together.

... it was the season of Darkness

… it was the season of Darkness (Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

Can’t you just see young Dickens in a creative writing class at his local community college? He turns in the first chapter to A Tale of Two Cities only to be told the opening lines are too general and excessively broad. The instructor hates the comma splices and suggests he try to give a specific example, to learn to “show, don’t tell”.

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crostini al pomodoro

crostini al pomodoro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once a month, our writing group uses half of our meeting time (we meet for approximately 90 minutes every other week) to explore the pomodoro technique together.  We write for 20 minutes, then discuss the experience before setting the timer and going again.  To give you a glimpse of how this works, I decided to reproduce here, in its unadulterated entirety, my latest result.


Jeff just set the timer for a 20 minute shared pomodoro and we are off! We have posted about the benefit of using a timed period to accomplish tasks before, but recently our writing group has embarked on using part of our meeting time to all do a couple of pomodoros together.  Some spend their time on a work in progress, a few use it to riff on something new, and me, well I am taking this one to hammer out this blog post.  I think, we are all pretty good about limiting our distractions when we are writing at home, but writing here at the coffee shop is another beast.  Last time we did it I just couldn’t concentrate enough to make sense of what I was working on so I actually riffed about the distraction itself (the coffee shop was crowded that day and it felt like the table next to us was right on top of us).  Today, at least we have a table out of the way.

It is interesting to be amongst writers writing, to hear the different rhythms of how we work.  Most of us are  touch typists, so we tend to type in flurries and then pause to move on.  We mostly avoid eye contact while working through it, but I am hyper-aware of the surroundings and find it difficult to get too focused.

This is a very loud coffee shop though, it always is.  But they have great coffee and actually a decent vibe overall.  When we lost our last meeting place (the bookstore decided that the coffee cafe just wasn’t working out), we happened on this place very quickly.  I even come here on the off weeks sometimes because they make great frozen coffee drinks and I can spend an hour to an hour and a half just working through something.

They also play a very varied musical selection here, jumping genres at a single bound.  A great Psychedelic Furs song just played and there could be a Tom Petty song around the corner. That all fades to the background when we are in the discussion part of our meetings, but often comes to the forefront when not engaged in conversation.

This post has begun to meander, partly because I didn’t come today with a defined writing goal, but I did bring my writing equipment: iPad, bluetooth keyboard, brain.  I have ideas swirling, but have had issue getting them to coalesce of late.  And that, my friends is what twenty minutes of riffing looks like.


As often occurs with writing off the cuff, there are some nuggets in the middle section that, if I was producing a polished piece, I could pull out and build around.  However, since I had pretty much reached a conclusion of sorts, feeling like I wanted to stretch out for the second period that week, and inspired by another member’s poetry work, I next embarked on kicking out some haiku infused with the flavor of the place in which it was written.


A coffee shop’s sounds
espresso tap, blender whirrs
conversation bits

A coffee shop hour
few regulars sit and work
others come and go

Conversation, crossword
many computers in use
coffee shop Sunday

How can that guy nap?
I would find it way too hard
Couch must be comfy

When this was a bank
probably not this busy
on Sunday morning

This is space transformed
Once a bank, now there’s coffee
The vault’s for study

Waxing poetic
while others drink their coffee
They’re none the wiser

Amidst the chaos
of this coffee shop today
I write poetry

This place is eXtreme
no really that is the name
not hyperbole

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An introduction to Scrivener


scrivener-outline (Photo credit: ChrisL_AK)

From time to time, the tools we use as writers evolve.  While William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrought their works on the classic Underwood typewriter, in this day and age there are a plethora of options in the digital space.  One such tool that I am embarking on making my goto is Scrivener[1], a $45 Mac OS application (a $40 Windows version is now available as well) that aims to fulfill the tagline of “Outline. Edit. Storyboard. Write”.[2]

The application has a 30-day trial that is fully featured and truly for 30 days of use (which means that if, for some reason, you only use it once a week it would last for 30 weeks).  There is an excellent interactive tutorial that is itself a Scrivener document which makes it very convenient to be up and running quickly.  It took me about an hour to go through the tutorial and immediately afterward I created a new project which eventually became this blog post.

Scrivener is designed around the concept of the Draft which is all of the textual elements of your work, with each granular section being an individual file.  This allows the author to visualize the work in progress as an outline, as index cards on a cork-board, or as individual chapters.  The work can be fully annotated, footnoted, and categorized so that locating a particular passage or finding all of the items that you wished to revisit for cleanup is easily accomplished.

Power, close at hand

While going through the tutorial, it became quite apparent that Scrivener is a tool with a lot of powerful features that are close at hand when you need them but not in your face when you don’t.  One powerful feature is the full-screen composition mode.  When you engage this mode, it’s just you and your page: no desktop, no other application windows, in short no distractions.  Great for cranking out the words.

Several features are aimed at providing the writer with the ability to customize the experience to their individual taste.  Once you’ve got it to your liking, it will feel like a comfortable pair of shoes, the ones you can walk miles in without chafing.

Another powerful feature is the ability to save snapshots of your work and then compare revisions in a visual manner.  Rework a paragraph to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that you can return to a previous version if things just don’t work out.

From working draft to publishable manuscript

Once your draft is ready to move to the next level, Scrivener offers the compile phase of the lifecycle.  This is where your draft is transformed into a completed manuscript.  Working on a screenplay that you want to send out in Final Draft format? No problem.  Ready to e-publish your latest novel? No problem. Pretty much any final format you desire, Scrivener’s got you covered.
For this blog post, I compiled to plain text and then posted from that resultant document.  The initial draft is four sections (this is the third) which I could have re-arranged per my whim.

It’s a wrap

So far, my experience with Scrivener has been great.  I am looking forward to using it for longer works where flow and layout come into play, but I appreciate its simplicity when that is all that is called for.  About the only knock that I can give it so far is that they don’t have an iOS version.  I sometimes like to just take my iPad to a coffee shop and write.  It would be great to have the same seamless experience on the mobile device, and I know that it is something the makers of Scrivener are working on.

[1] One of my absolute favorite short stories of all time is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.

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How to Run a Writing Group: Dealing with Feedback

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

Dealing with that other F-Word: Feedback

The stocks

The stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know the social contract that stipulates that you don’t tell someone their baby is ugly? Well, as a member of a writing group, you will break that contract. The baby, in this case, is someone’s novel, screenplay, blog, or poem.

Let’s face it, the tendency is for most people to fall into one of three categories when it comes to commenting on someone’s writing: The “Hack and Slash” types, the “Lukewarm” types and the “Shiny Happy” types. Hack and Slash seems to take great pleasure in totally decimating everyone else’s work. There is not one positive nugget they can find in anyone’s writing, save their own. Lukewarm will often take the middle road on everything. The feedback they provide is wishy-washy and they will not give you direct feedback on anything. Shiny Happy, on the other hand, treats everyone’s ego as a fragile Tiffany egg and, while pointing out all things positive about a piece of writing, often fails to give the writer notes they can use to better their work. All of these types tend to be non-productive, especially in the group setting.

Believe it or not there is a tactful way to go about letting someone know that their writing needs work. We know it as constructive criticism. The key word here is “constructive.” Feedback given by members of a writer’s group must be the type that propels a person’s writing forward. Feedback such as “I really like your work. I found it interesting,” while positive, doesn’t really tell the writer anything specific that he or she can use.

Having been in the same writers group for the past eight years and having offered feedback on student papers as a teacher, I have found the following model to be helpful:

a. Point out one or two things you really liked about the piece and why. Give specific details so that the person receiving the feedback can tell you read his or her work closely. What specifically did you like about the writer’s work? What exactly made it interesting? Compared to what? Try to point out specific sentences or paragraphs that work well.

b. Point out one or two areas for improvement. Don’t just mention the problems you saw, offer potential solutions and “What ifs”. For those sentences and paragraphs that don’t work well, explain ways the writer might adjust the ideas or content presented so that they add rather than detract from the overall piece.

c. Ask clarifying questions of the writer. This often helps generate new ideas and helps sort out problem areas in a piece of writing. For example, “Where do you see this character going in the story?” or “What if you took the dialogue from Chapter 2 and incorporated it into Chapter 1 instead?”

Sticking with the ugly baby metaphor, I have always viewed writing as a little like giving birth. Heck, writing gives birth to ideas, right? In that sense, when one of our “children” happens to be the focus of constructive criticism, it is important that all members of the writing group understand how to accept such critique of their work gracefully. When members of a group are familiar to one another, they are often aware of how they need to approach critiquing a fellow member’s writing. But when the members of a writers group are an unknown quantity, so to speak, it often becomes a little nerve-wracking for both the constructive criticizer and the constructively criticized. It might be helpful to put the following protocol in place, especially if members of the writing group don’t yet know one another:

  • When receiving constructive criticism, instead of speaking, take notes and write down questions you have for those offering their feedback.
  • Allow each member of the group to offer feedback and then address each member’s comments and questions.
  • Always keep in mind that the goal is to help you develop your writing.
  • If something someone says strikes you the wrong way, be sure to ask questions to help clarify their comments. Chances are, they did not mean the comment to be taken in a negative manner.

The fact is that most everyone is nervous about giving and receiving constructive criticism. As long as clear expectations are conveyed to the entire group, there should be very few problems with the process. Not everyone is going to agree and sometimes you might be providing feedback on a piece written in your least favorite genre, but try to put personal feelings aside and look at the writing itself. Ask yourself how you can help the writer make the piece better. And always remember that each person in the group has a common goal: to improve their writing. Listen to one another. Work together. Read thoroughly and provide meaningful feedback. Those are the keys to using constructive criticism in a writer’s group.